SmittenPlain and simple, Snowmass Lake was the sole reason I decided to go to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness back in August 2009. After visiting RMNP for four straight years I needed a change of scenery so I started searching on SummitPost trying to decide what part of Colorado I would head to for my 2009 trip. When I came across the image of Snowmass Lake with its stunning backdrop of Hagerman Peak and the Snowmass-Capitol Massif my search was over.
Hiking out to Snowmass Lake became my primary goal for that trip, and while I should have been content with just that, I couldn’t get past the idea of trying to climb Snowmass Mountain as well. Not since Longs Peak was I so enamored with a mountain! A climb of Snowmass Mountain offered everything I look for when deciding on summits to go after: a beautiful route, a challenging route, and beautiful summit views. I think it was the challenge as much as the scenery that intrigued me. Trying to complete the route on a one day sufferfest had me stoked. With its 21.5 mile roundtrip and 5,800 feet of vertical gain, completing the route in a single day was a challenge I was up for. I was excited to say the least and for several months I became rather obsessed with Snowmass Mountain.
But I never made it up Snowmass Mountain in August 2009. In fact I didn’t even make it to Snowmass Lake. While I may have been stoked about a single day attempt, my son Andrew and friend Rob were more interested in making it a two day trip, by backpacking into Snowmass Lake. Since we hadn’t planned ahead of time to backpack we didn’t have all of the gear we needed, and early on in that trip I realized that summiting Snowmass Mountain wasn’t going to happen. We considered a dayhike out to the lake, but I decided that I wouldn’t be happy with just that. It was sort of an all or nothing approach and I was somewhat content with waiting a year so I could get to the lake and the summit, so I settled on just getting a good look of Snowmass Lake from the summit of Buckskin Benchmark. The view was stunning to say the least. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the area was. I knew I had to get there, and before the 2009 trip was even over I had already decided that I would be coming back to the Maroon Bells in 2010, just so I could get up Snowmass Mountain. A year is a long time to wait!
Backpacking: Baptism by Fire
To make the roundtrip to Snowmass Mountain more palatable we all agreed that a two day trip was the best approach. This of course meant having to backpack in to Snowmass Lake. I am a self-professed dayhiker! In the dozen or so years I have been hiking I have never spent a single night in the backcountry, but I knew the day would come when I would finally go backpacking, as there are a number of trails and summits that I would like to get to that require multi-day trips. I wanted to climb Snowmass Mountain so I agreed to bite the bullet and head to the backcountry. Monday was our big day and we were all excited about the backpack into the lake. Since we didn’t need to be in a hurry we cooked a big breakfast and used the time to finish getting our packs ready. Unfortunately it started raining just before we left our campsite on Maroon Creek Road. It rained during the entire drive to the Snowmass Creek trailhead. It started as a light rain, but it started coming down harder on the drive over, and it was pretty obvious that this was a big weather system and that the rain wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. The mood was pretty gloomy in the car as we all realized that we were in for a wet day on the trail. Amazingly it stopped raining as we pulled up to the trailhead. It might have been cloudy, but at least it wasn’t raining anymore! We started up the trail around 11 AM. We took our first break about an hour into the hike which is when the rain started again and we put our rain gear on for the first time. This shower lasted less than 30 minutes and we were able to ditch the rain gear. By the time we made it to the Bear Creek Falls overlook, about four miles into our day, there was some blue sky, and we took a long break, to eat a little and take in the stunning views towards Pierre Lakes Basin.
But shortly after we started back up the trail the storm came back and it was much more intense this time and the rain gear came out for the second time that day. Unfortunately we were in an open area and the storm was fierce, with plenty of thunder and lightning and all of a sudden I realized I was getting pelted with hail. The intensity of the storm made me pretty nervous and I wanted to get out of this open area as soon as possible. Fortunately I could see the woods less than a half mile up the trail. It was a long, scary half mile hike in that storm!
The rain continued until just prior to us reaching the logjam, about six miles into the day. Crossing the jam with all the logs soaking wet was a little challenging. The logs were very slippery so we took our time crossing.
By the time we crossed the creek the sun was back out. It was actually pretty warm as we headed up the switchbacks on the final two miles to the lake. The weather had been so fickle all day, mostly bad, but the day was now beautiful and the views up to ridgelines were excellent.
But by the time we reached the top of the switchbacks the clouds started to roll back in. I was pretty confident that it was going to rain again and I commented to Rob that I hoped the rain would at least hold off long enough for us to get to the lake so we could set up camp in dry conditions. We didn’t get so lucky! We arrived at the lake and Rob scouted around picking out a campsite. As he did it started to rain and for the third time in the day the rain gear went back on. As luck would have it the rain came down very hard. We all scrambled to get our tents up as fast as possible, but it didn’t matter at this point as we all were cold and at least somewhat wet. Each of us climbed into our tents and sleeping bags attempting to stay dry and warm up. It was around 5 PM by now and as I was lying in my sleeping bag I feared that it was going to be a long, cold night. I unfortunately would be correct!
It rained constantly until about 8 PM. In those three hours I tried to get some sleep, but honestly I spent most of the time just trying to get warm. When the rain stopped Andrew and I got out of our tents and walked down to Snowmass Lake. I was cold, it was damp and I couldn’t help but think that his was not what I dreamed my first view of Snowmass Lake would be like. I really wasn’t all that thrilled with seeing the lake as I had bigger concerns on my mind. With how hard it rained Connell got fairly wet and his sleeping bag was not as warm as was needed in these conditions. While all of us were cold, Connell’s clothes were very damp and he was shivering. I had him put on dry clothes, I gave him my zero degree sleeping bag and I took his sleeping bag for the evening, hoping this would be sufficient to resolve the issue. Fortunately he warmed up pretty quickly and the shivering stopped. Knowing that Connell was going to be fine was a relief, but it was still a long, cold, damp 12 hours on my first night in the backcountry. If I got three hours of sleep I would be surprised. I spent a good portion of the night just trying to stay as warm as possible. I remember looking at my watch at regular intervals, counting down the hours until sunrise. My watch couldn’t move fast enough!
A Brand New (Summit) Day
When all the dark clouds roll away
And the sun begins to shine
I see my freedom from across the way
And it comes in right on time
Well it shines so bright and it gives so much light
And it comes from the sky above
Makes me feel so free makes me feel like me
And lights my life with love
And it seems like and it feels like
And it seems like yes it feels like
A brand new day, yeah
A brand new day
When my watch read 5:30 AM I unzipped my tent so I could check to see what kind of weather the new day might bring. I looked up at the sky and it was full of stars. This was the weather I was hoping for. It was time to go climbing! My spirits lifted and I yelled over towards Rob and Andrew’s tents to wake them up. The day looked promising. By the time we were ready to hit the trail it was first light. The skies were blue and the glow from the sunrise was covering Hagerman Peak and Snowmass Mountain. The view was even more beautiful than I had imagined. For the first time in nearly a day I felt positive about our chances on Snowmass Mountain.
Since we didn’t have time to make any preparations the night before, we stopped at the lake to filter water before heading up the trail, and it was 6:30 AM when we started the hike around the lake. At this point it felt good to be back on the trail. I think all of us just wanted to get moving if for no other reason than so we could warm up. We couldn’t help but be in a good mood with the blue sky and the stunning sunrise glow on Snowmass Mountain.
But of course we didn’t stay warm or dry very long. As is well documented about the route, you will get wet as you hike around the lake through the willows, particularly if it rained the night before. I had my rain gear with me but with blue sky above us I refused to put it on. The trail around the lake is so narrow and the willows are so thick, there is no way to stay dry and our pants were very wet by the time we made it to the west side of the lake and the start of the climb up the initial boulderfield. But the sun was coming up by now and the warm sunrays felt wonderful, and it didn’t take long for our pants to dry out. The wet willows were nothing more than a short lived nuisance!
We started up the initial boulderfield and there was no problem with route finding. Actually, route finding would be a non-issue all day. I could say many positive things about climbing Snowmass Mountain, and one of them would definitely be the ease of route finding. Consider the fact that from the east side of the lake you can see the route all the way to the ridgeline. Once you get above the initial scree slope, just pick one of the many loose boulder invested lines and start heading for the ridge. It’s pretty straightforward. Plenty of loose rock, but straightforward. Other than the 3000 feet of unrelenting slope and loose rocks, the biggest challenge is finding the right spot to cross over to the west side of the ridge. Fortunately we had no problem determining where we needed to head. Since nearly the entire snowmass was gone we followed the recommended line up towards the notch on the ridge just south of the summit.
There were plenty of cairns in the boulderfield and things went pretty smoothly until we hit the scree slope. This slope was tough climbing. It was steep and loose, and as I remember it, most all of the decent sized rocks were too loose to step on to aid in moving upward. So I avoided them as much as I could. Rob was in the lead, with Andrew in front of me as I took up the rear. There was no one above us, as we were the first ones on the mountain that day, but there was one group well below us. Fortunately on only one occasion did I let any rocks loose, so I only had to yell “rocks” one time to the climbers below us.
Above the scree slope the steepness of the route eased as we made our way through the grassy slopes that lie below the final boulderfield. But it’s still a long way up that boulderfield though to reach the ridgeline. There were a few small cliff bands that were easy enough to work our way around. The toughest part was just dealing with all the loose rocks and boulders. Despite how big the boulders were, I was amazed at how loose some of them were. I was glad we didn’t have anyone above us! My biggest fear leading up to this year’s trip was having a climber above me let rocks loose. For the little experience that we had on this type of terrain I was very pleased with how well we kept the loose rocks in place.
Once we reached the gully so we could climb up to the notch that crosses to the west side, the terrain noticeably changed. The grade in this gully got steeper and the rock was looser than the terrain below, and this was the case all the way to the summit. I reminded Andrew a number of times to “test every hand and foot hold twice”. Actually, I was surprised that the climb up the gully was not steeper. From a distance the steepness looked intense, but as so often happens, things look much worse from a distance. Our movements slowed as we headed up towards the notch, mainly due to the time it took to test and find good holds, as well as trying to not dislodge any of the rocks and boulders. Finding handholds was easy. Finding good handholds wasn’t. It wasn’t that handholds were needed to aid in moving upward as much as they were needed to keep from sliding downhill, which occasionally happened if we stepped on a less than solid rock. As we ascended the gully I stayed as close as possible to the wall. The rock seemed more solid there and I was able to find better holds along the wall, as well as use it for balance.
Reaching the ridgeline and crossing over to the west side was a treat. For one, it was a big mental boost as it seemed like a great accomplishment in itself. And second, the views from this side of the ridge were incredible. From the time we crossed the ridge, all the way to the summit, I found the route very easy to follow. This was a pleasant surprise! I was figuring it would be difficult to follow, but the route is well cairned all the way to the summit and although I wouldn’t call it a “climber’s trail”, for most of way there was a faint “path”. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of scrambling, but once we were able to locate the next cairn the path became pretty obvious. Another bonus was the lack of exposure. We followed the cairned route which is well below the top of the ridgeline, and while I realize that everyone’s tolerance for exposure varies, except for a few moves just below the summit, none of us in our group of three had any problems. And, taken as a whole, none of us thrive on exposed moves – take that for what it’s worth. And best of all, which is almost ironic, some of the most solid rock I dealt with all day was on the last few Class 3 moves just below the summit. Go figure!
No Helmets: I Respectfully DisagreeOn our backpack into Snowmass Lake we met a couple that was hiking out after having reached the summit that day. The gentleman saw our helmets and told us we would not need them. He said no one on the mountain had helmets that day, as the route was solid. This was surprising to me as everything I had read leading up to this climb said that helmets were necessary, and after experiencing the route first hand, I would have to respectfully disagree with that gentleman.
Due to a near miss, we put our helmets on shortly after starting up the scree slope. As I said before, this slope is steep and it is easy for someone above you to knock scree loose. Rob was in the lead above us and inadvertently did let some scree loose, and a few pebbles along with a baseball size rock came down over my head and just missed me by less than 10 feet. Andrew heard and saw the rocks coming so he yelled down to me to duck. After this incident I immediately yelled up to Andrew, “Helmets on!” In reality they should have been on already!
The route above the scree slope leveled out and the scree turned into big boulders so we took our helmets off, and kept them off until we started our descent from the summit. This was a mistake! While one could argue whether or not helmets are needed above the scree slope, it became pretty obvious to me that they are needed from the base of the gully that takes you to the ridgeline, all the way to the summit. I remember feeling a little uncomfortable ascending, thinking that the rock was steep and loose enough to warrant helmets. After my incident earlier on the climb on the scree slope I should have know better. Unfortunately I didn't listen to my instincts. Fortunately, we had no incidents. Live and learn! But as soon as we reached the summit, shortly after our initial celebration, the first thing I said was, “We’re wearing helmets on the descent.” Everyone agreed! I think all of us felt the need for the helmets on the last push to the summit and we chastised ourselves for a few seconds. We then proceeded to celebrate being on the most beautiful summit I have ever been on.
Summit, Down, Up, OutFor having just climbed about 3,000 feet in just over four hours, we had a fury of energy when we reached the summit. Besides being excited about actually bagging Snowmass Mountain all of us were amazed at the views from the top. We were like kids in a candy shop. I’ll say it again, Snowmass is the most beautiful summit I have ever been on. I can’t ever remember having so much energy once I reached the top of a mountain. It did help that we had the summit all to ourselves. Precious! A popular Colorado 14er on a blue bird summer morning! I never imagined such a coup!
We spent our time on the summit soaking in the views and taking the obligatory summit photos. It was a wonderful 30 minutes. But while we weren’t in a hurry to descend, after taking 30 minutes to enjoy the moment we decided that descending was prudent. The weather was cooperating so that wasn’t rushing us, but we still had a long day in front of us as we were hiking out from the lake the same day, so we didn’t really have any time to dilly dally.
The first few moves down from the summit were the most difficult of the day. They were definitely Class 3, and all of us chose to descend these moves facing in. But after that, all the way down the west side of the ridgeline and all the way to the lake the descent was pretty straightforward. Admittedly, the descent was difficult if for no other reason than descending on loose rocks and boulders is difficult. And for what it’s worth we wore our helmets on the entire descent, finally taking them off once we reached Snowmass Lake.
We did finally run into three other climbers as we were descending. They were taking a break at the top of the notch, and they would be the only climbers we would see the entire day.
And while the decent was challenging due to the loose rock, the scenery was incredible.
When we reached our campsite we quickly tore down our tents and loaded up our backpacks. The only thing to decide now was how to exit from the lake. Rob and I had been considering hiking out via Buckskin Pass. Since we had two cars on this trip, on Monday morning before heading to Snowmass Creek Trailhead, we dropped one car off at the overnight parking lot on Maroon Creek Road. This would allow us, if we still had the energy, to hike up and out from Snowmass Lake via Buckskin Pass. Since Connell didn’t climb with us up Snowmass Mountain I offered the opportunity to him and Andrew to hike out with Rob via the Pass. They both said no, so I was free to go with Rob. We all packed up our gear and we hiked out together to the split in the trail. Andrew and Connell headed back “down” the Maroon-Snowmass Trail, while Rob and I headed “up” the Maroon-Snowmass Trail. I was rather excited about heading out this route. I had never been on the Maroon-Snowmass Trail between Snowmass Lake and Buckskin Pass and I was hoping the scenery would be spectacular, and it was.
While it seemed like a great idea at the time, hiking up over Buckskin Pass proved to be a little more challenging than we hoped for. This route added an extra 1700 feet of elevation gain to our day, add in that we were now carrying full packs, we eventually ran out of gas. Before we reached the final 500 feet of climbing to the pass my steps slowed significantly and I took breaks more and more often. Fortunately the scenery was stunning and in the end, despite how tired we were, we were glad that we went out this route.
It was 8 PM and starting to get dark by the time we made it back to the car. We drove down Maroon Creek Road and headed to Hickory House Ribs where Andrew and Connell were waiting for us. As we sat around eating BBQ and drinking beers we discussed the crazy adventures of the previous two days. I was pleasantly surprised to hear Andrew and Connell making plans for another backpacking trip this fall. With as bad as things went, they easily could have been turned off from backpacking forever. But they, as well as myself, learned a lot on this first adventure into the backcountry and they discussed the equipment upgrades and changes they planned on making in order to make the next experience more enjoyable. For Rob, being an experienced backpacker he was much more prepared that day than we were, and is always ready to head out on a backpacking adventure. The conditions on this trip didn’t faze him at all. And for me, I will head to the backcountry again. Yes, due to the weather it wasn’t as positive of an experience as I had hoped, but there was something special about the experience. It’s hard to describe, but I think it is the simplicity of backpacking that I liked the most. I wouldn’t be surprised that my next trip to the backcountry will be for at least two nights. I already have a few ideas about where I will be heading next…